Thursday, January 03, 2008

Rolling Back The State

It's grim up in Field's Birkenhead*

Frank Field is a long-standing hero of BOM- a Labour MP representing a trad Labour constituency who actually talks a lot of sense. Today he has another interesting article about welfare reform.

Arguing that the Conservative vision of a smaller state is finally starting to gain traction with the electorate, he says voters want two new freedoms:

"The first is to gain greater freedom from a centrally run ration book-type state service where there is a set menu, often a single item, that has to be consumed at a certain time. The second demand is for taxpayers to use their own money to run their own services."

And he runs through a selection of policy changes that he reckons would let Labour seize the initiative:

  • Choice for poor parents- Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit now average payments over a child's life approaching £100,000. Why not offer to mothers or fathers the right to draw a quarter of this sum to look after their child full time? £25,000 tax free over the first two years of a child's life would massively increase the freedom of families to choose to care for their own very young children. Payment for the rest of the child's life would be decreased commensurately.
  • Lower school leaving age- The Government should reconsider its policy of locking up all children in education until they are 18... A government intent on moulding public services to individual needs, rather than forcing individuals into a one-size-fits-all service, would introduce a school leaving certificate testing basic skills
  • Real training- Those people at 14 who then left school for work would have the £20,000 budget for education for all 14- to 18-year-olds held as a dowry. This would be the pupils' own capital to use themselves when they knew what long-term jobs they would like and for which they would need serious training
  • School choice- to allow people to run their own small school, with what is in effect their own taxes, would unleash into a public service the self interest of parents that would enhance the opportunities that a good school offers
  • Elected sheriffs- It wouldn't take many elections to see a revolution in the way the police employ their record number of staff - in a way voters approve. Anti-social behaviour would begin to be curbed for a start.

Several of these ideas are old BOM favourites. Indeed, elected sheriffs, along with those new privately managed state funded schools, are now so mainstream they'll supposedly be introduced by the next Tory government.

But Field is well ahead of the er, field, in other areas. We like his idea for reducing the school leaving age to 14 contingent on passing a School Leaving Certificate testing the 3Rs. This is much more in line with what employers want than yet more "graduates" who can't write properly (eg see recent CBI statements and previous blogs).

We also like his ideas for putting training budgets directly in the hands of non-school 14-18 year olds so that they can decide for themselves what training is actually useful. Our excellent plumber Terry might even risk taking another apprentice if he got paid a dowry to do so.

We're less convinced by his proposal to let parents draw a £25 grand advance against future child benefit payments. What happens if they take the money, blow it on plasma tellies, and then force us to bail them out later? And wouldn't it simply incentivise Shameless families to have even more kids?

But that aside, we continue to wonder what makes Field a Labour MP rather than a Tory. He's well to the right of many in Dave's shadow cabinet.

*Footnote- As the vid shows, Birkenhead suffered massive economic decline when shipbuilding collapsed (although contrary to the 1980s World In Action spin- clock the slushy soundtrack- that wasn't down to the evils of Thatcherism). Half a century on, the official unemployment rate is still nearly three times the national average, while earnings are only just over half (eg see here). So much for regional policy, which in far too many cases has simply prolonged the agony by artificially inflating local employment and other costs (eg see this blog).